The general understanding of the public in relation to the Battle of Sekigahara has been shaped over the centuries by popular narratives, plays, and (more recently) television dramas and movies. Last year the most recent of these cinematic endeavours was shown to audiences throughout Japan, and took as its inspiration the novel “Sekigahara” written by Shiba Ryōtarō in the mid-1960s.
The novel examines events primarily from the point of view of Ishida Mitsunari, a retainer and (in many ways) acolyte of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who gathers together households still loyal to the Toyotomi as Hideyoshi’s health deteriorates in anticipation of the inevitable clash with Ieyasu.
The Battle of Sekigahara in popular memory has by and large focused on a number of events that highlight the various stages of the battle itself. Those have been (for example): the opening gun battle between the forces of Ukita Hideie and Fukushima Masanori, fighting between the forces of Shima Sakon and Kuroda Nagamasa, the “Toi-deppō” (or “probing shot”) made at the forces of Kobayakawa Hideaki, thereby forcing Hideaki to choose whether to remain loyal to Mitsuhide or defect to Ieyasu, the battlefield death of Ōtani Yoshitsugu (a consequence of Hideaki’s defection to Ieyasu), and the final desperate charge of the Shimazu at the Tokugawa forces in the closing stages of the battle.
It was in anticipation of obtaining a copy of the 2017 film that I recently purchased a book titled “The Truth of the Battle of Sekigahara” (関ケ原合戦の真実) by Beppu University academic Shiramine Jun (白峰旬). What I’ve read so far has been revelatory in explaining just how historical memory and popular fiction can combine to completely distort the truth of an historical event. Professor Shiramine points out that most of what is commonly known about the Battle of Sekigahara, namely the events described above, derives from so-called “Gunki” or “war tales” that were written during the Edo period (in other words, after Tokugawa rule had established itself at the centre of power in early modern Japan).
The purpose of these “war tales” was not so much to accurately re-tell the events of history as they were to entertain readers with stories of heroism and betrayal, and so the historical evidence for such tales was not as important as the ability to captivate the reader. As a consequence, the popular understanding of the events of September 15th 1600 became tinged with a degree of sensationalism removed from the historical record.
For example, the common belief among the public is that the Battle of Sekigahara lasted the entire day, with initial fighting commencing around 8 in the morning and continuing until the late afternoon. However historical records of the time note that fighting was initiated after the fog cloud sitting over the battlefield dissipated, which would have been around 10am. In addition, while the battle began with both sides firing muskets at one another, it very quickly descended into what is known as a “白兵戦”, or “pure infantry battle” involving spears and swords. The battle itself was over in the space of 2 to 3 hours, yet in order to make it seem as though an epic struggle had occurred, later “war tales” spun the timespan of the battle out to an entire day.
As Professor Shiramine goes to extraordinarily lengths to prove, the most famous incident of the Battle of Sekigahara, the “probing shot” at the forces of Kobayakawa Hideaki by troops belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu, which apparently forced Kobayakawa to reveal his true allegiances and support the Tokugawa in attacking nearby forces belonging to Ōtani Yoshitsugu (allied to Ishida Mitsuhide), is a work of pure fiction. Nowhere in the contemporary sources of the period is there any mention of any “probing shot” being made at the forces of Hideaki. Moreover, contemporary sources of the period show that Tokugawa Ieyasu had been in correspondence with Hideaki long before the battle began, and Hideaki did not wait until midday before revealing his loyalty to Ieyasu but initiated his attack against Yoshitsugu much earlier in proceedings.
Another point backing up this evidence is the fact that Kobayakawa was suitably rewarded after the battle for his contribution to the Tokugawa victory, whereas other less prominent generals located near the Kobayakawa camp at Matsu-oyama only defected once it became clear they would be overrun by Kobayakawa’s forces, and suffered the consequences of their treachery by later having their lands confiscated by the Tokugawa.
It is these revelations, and the close examination of primary sources to back up such claims, that makes Professor Shiramine’s book such an interesting read. While there is undoubtedly some disappointment that episodes one has always assumed to be based on history never in fact existed, or existed in a much more basic form than referred to in popular literature, one can at least glimpse the true nature of the Battle of Sekigahara (incidentally, the name “Sekigahara” as it applies to the battlefield is somewhat misleading, as contemporary sources from around 1600 note that most fighting took place in an area known as “Yamanaka” (山中) and not in the village of Sekigahara itself. “Yamanaka” lies around 2-3km to the west of Sekigahara Station and nowadays is a quiet residential area not far from the gravesite marker of Ōtani Yoshitsugu).
Another point that Professor Shiramine makes is that the terms used to refer to the armies of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, “East Army” and “West Army” respectively, were inventions of writers in the Edo period and were not used by contemporaries (this is less surprising, given that such terminology abounds in historical studies in order to more neatly codify a broad or complex phenomenon).
This is just some of the details of the Professor Shiramine’s book, which has received mostly positive reviews on Amazon.jp (although there are some complaints that Professor Shiramine tends to repeat himself and his points, which is a point that can be brought up concerning a number of Japanese academic studies). For an exploration on the use of primary source materials to establish the “truth” of an historical event, and a study on the Battle of Sekigahara in general, Professor Shiramine’s book is a great place to start and highly recommended.